Forgotten Author: No 61 - Virginia Andrews

Sometimes an author's work lives on, but here's an example of an actual author living on after her demise.

Or rather, not – because the real Virginia Andrews has been replaced by a ghostwriter called Andrew Neiderman, who has penned more than 40 subsequent volumes in her name. Andrews' books did so well that her estate found it necessary to keep her alive and continue earning money. The Inland Revenue even argued that her name was a valuable, and therefore taxable, asset.

Let's go back to the beginning. Cleo Virginia Andrews was an American novelist, born in 1923 in Virginia. She started out as an illustrator and portrait painter – a sedentary occupation chosen largely because she was crippled by arthritis stemming from problems compounded by an early fall. When she switched to writing at the age of 55, she first chose science fiction, then produced a novel called The Obsessed, which her publisher felt she should sex up and retitle. The revised version, a perverse fairytale marketed as a horror novel and now called Flowers in the Attic, appeared in 1979 and was a surprise bestseller.

It's an airless, claustrophobic work, telling the story of four blonde, blue-eyed siblings, Cathy, Cory, Carrie and Chris, who are imprisoned in an attic by their mother and grandmother in order to gain an inheritance. Kept there for years, mentally and physically abused by their relatives, two of the children eventually fall in love and form a new family unit before escaping.

The siblings wreak revenge on their captors in the first sequel, Petals on the Wind (1980), and subsequent sequels continue the style from new viewpoints. Throughout, gothic imagery is laced with all the trappings of Victorian melodrama. There are hidden identities, arsenic poisonings, outbreaks of religious hysteria, arson, incest and incarceration in a madhouse. It seems that the feverish hothouse atmosphere of life in the attic appealed to the temperament of teenaged girls, who clearly wanted to have their most macabre fears about sex confirmed, and bought the books in their millions.

Andrews' stand-alone 1982 novel My Sweet Audrina explores similar themes in outlandishly lurid prose. She began the Casteel series of novels, but soon such volumes were only "inspired" by her voluminous notes because, in 1986, Andrews died. Her own books are psychologically unsettling and compellingly awful, whereas the pseudonymous volumes which were designed to keep the brand alive are merely awful.